James 3
Vincent's Word Studies
My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
Masters (διδάσκαλοι)

Literally, and better, teachers, with a reference to the exhortation to be slow to speak (James 1:19). Compare 1 Corinthians 14:26-34. James is warning against the too eager and general assumption of the privilege of teaching, which was not restricted to a particular class, but was exercised by believers generally.

For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
Offend (πταίομεν)

Lit., stumble, as Rev. Compare James 2:10.

To bridle

See on James 1:26.

Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

Following the old reading, ἴδε. All the best texts read εἰ δὲ, now if. So Rev.

Bits (χαλινοὺς)

Only here and Revelation 14:20. It may be rendered either bit, as A. V., or bridle, as Rev., but bridle is preferable because it corresponds with the verb to bridle (James 3:2) which is compounded with this noun.


The position in the sentence is emphatic.

We turn about (μετάγομεν)

Used by James only.

Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
The ships

See Introduction, on James' local allusions. Dean Howson observes that "there is more imagery drawn from mere natural phenomena in the one short epistle of James than in all St. Paul's epistles put together."

So great

As the ship which conveyed Paul to Malta, which contained two hundred and seventy-six persons (Acts 27:37).

Fierce (σκληρῶν)

More literally, and better, as Rev., rough. The word primarily means hard, harsh

Helm (πηδαλίου)

Better, rudder, as Rev. The rudder was an oar worked by a handle. Helm and rudder were thus one. The word occurs only here and Acts 27:40.

The governor listeth (ἡ ὁρμὴ τοῦ εὐθύνοντες βούλεται)

Lit., the impulse or desire of the steersman wisheth. Ὁρμὴ, impulse, only here and Acts 14:5, of an assault, onset.

The governor (τοῦ εὐθύνοντος)

Rev., steersman. Lit., of him who is guiding. Only here and John 1:23. From εὐθύς straight.

Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
Boasteth great things (μεγαλαυχεῖ)

The best texts separate the compound, and read μεγάλα αὐχεῖ, of course with the same meaning. Αὐχεῖ, boasteth, only here in New Testament.

How great a matter a little fire kindleth (ἡλίκον πῦρ ἡλίκην ὕλην ἀνάπτει)

The word ὕλη (only here in New Testament) means wood or a forest, and hence the matter or raw material of which a thing is made. Later, it is used in the philosophical sense of matter - "the foundation of the manifold" - opposed to the intelligent or formative principle νοῦς, mind. The authorized version has taken the word in one of its secondary senses, hardly the philosophical sense it would seem; but any departure from the earlier sense was not only needless, but impaired the vividness of the figure, the familiar and natural image of a forest on fire. So Homer:

"As when a fire

Seizes a thick-grown forest, and the wind

Drives it along in eddies, while the trunks

Fall with the boughs amid devouring flames."

Iliad, xi., 155.

Hence, Rev., rightly, "Behold how much wood or how great a forest is kindled by how small a fire.

This, too, is the rendering of the Vulgate: quam magnam silvam.

And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
World of iniquity (κόσμος τῆς ἀδικίας)

Κόσμος, primarily, means order, and is applied to the world or universe as an orderly system. A world of iniquity is an organism containing within itself all evil essence, which from it permeates the entire man. World is used in the same sense as in the latter part of Proverbs 17:6 (Sept.), which is not given in the A. V. "The trusty hath the whole world of things, but the faithless not a groat."

Is the tongue (καθίσταται)

This differs a little from the simple is, though it is not easy to render it accurately. The verb means to appoint, establish, institute, and is used of the tongue as having an appointed and definite place in a system (among our members). It might be rendered hath its place.

Defileth (σπιλοῦσα)

Lit., defiling. Only here and Jde 1:23. See on 2 Peter 2:13.

Setteth on fire (φλογίζουσα)

Lit., setting on fire. Only in this verse in New Testament.

The course of nature (τροχὸν τῆς γενέσεως)

A very obscure passage. Τροχός, (only here in New Testament), from τρέχω, to run, applies generally to anything round or circular which runs or rolls, as a wheel or sphere. Hence, often a wheel. Used of the circuit of fortifications and of circles or zones of land or sea. From the radical sense, to run, comes the meaning course, as the course of the sun; and from this a place for running, a race-course. Γενέσεως rendered nature, means origin, beginning, birth, manner of birth, production, and is used by Plato for the creation, or the sum of created things. It also means a race, and a generation or age. In the New Testament it occurs but twice outside of this epistle, viz., at Matthew 1:1, "the book of the generation of Jesus Christ," where the meaning is origin or birth; the birth-book of Jesus Christ. The other passage is Matthew 1:18, according to the best texts, also meaning birth. In James 1:23, as we have seen, πρόσωπον τῆς γενέσεως, is the face of his birth. We may then safely translate τροχός by wheel; and as birth is the meaning of γένεσις in every New-Testament passage where it occurs, we may give it the preference here and render the wheel of birth - i.e., the wheel which is set in motion at birth and runs on to the close of life. It is thus a figurative description of human life. So Anacreon:

"The chariot-wheel, like life, runs rolling round,"

Tertullian says: "The whole revolving wheel of existence bears witness to the resurrection of the dead." The Rev., which gives nature, puts birth in margin. This revolving wheel is kindled by the tongue, and rolls on in destructive blaze. The image is justified by the fact. The tongue works the chief mischief, kindles the most baleful fires in the course of life.

For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:
Kind (φύσις)

Wrong. James is not speaking of the relation between individual men and individual beasts, but of the relation between the nature of man and that of beasts, which may be different in different beasts. Hence, as Rev., in margin, nature.

Beasts (θηρίων)

Quadrupeds. Not beasts generally, nor wild beasts only. In Acts 28:4, Acts 28:5, the word is used of the viper which fastened on Paul's hand. In Peter's vision (Acts 10:19; Acts 11:6) there is a different classification from the one here; quadrupeds being denoted by a specific term, τετράποδα, four-footed creatures. There θηρία includes fishes, which in this passage are classed as ἐναλίων, things in the sea.

By mankind (τῇ φύσει τῇ ἀνθρωπίνῃ)

Rather, by the nature of man, φύσις, as before, denoting the generic character. Every nature of beasts is tamed by the nature of man. Compare the fine chorus in the "Antigone" of Sophocles, 343-352:

"The thoughtless tribe of birds,

The beasts that roam the fields

The brood in sea-depths born,

He takes them all in nets,

Knotted in snaring mesh,

Man, wonderful in skill.

And by his subtle arts

He holds in sway the beasts

That roam the fields or tread the mountain's height

And brings the binding yoke

Upon the neck of horse with shaggy mane,

Or bull on mountain crest,

Untamable in strength."

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
No man (οὐδεὶς ἀνθρώπων)

A strong expression. Lit., no on of men.

Unruly (ἀκατάσχετον)

Lit., not to be held back. The proper reading, however, is ἀκατάστατον, unsettled. See on καθίσταται, hath its place, James 3:6. Rev., correctly, restless.

Deadly (θανατηφόρου)

Lit., death-bearing, or-bringing. Only here in New Testament.

Poison (ἰοῦ)

Rendered rust at James 5:3; and found only in these two passages and in Romans 3:13, in the citation of Psalm 140:3.

Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
God, even the Father (τὸν Θεὸν καὶ πατέρα)

The proper reading is τὸν Κύριον, the Lord, and the καὶ, and, is simply connective. Read, therefore, as Rev., the Lord and Father. This combination of terms for God is uncommon. See James 1:27.


Not who, which would designate personally certain men; whereas James designates them generically.

Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
Doth a fountain, etc

The interrogative particle, μήτι, which begins the sentence, expects a negative answer. Fountain has the article, "the fountain," generic. See Introduction, on James' local allusions. The Land of Promise was pictured to the Hebrew as a land of springs (Deuteronomy 8:7; Deuteronomy 11:11). "Palestine," says Dean Stanley, "was the only country where an Eastern could have been familiar with the language of the Psalmsist: 'He sendeth the springs into the valleys which run among the mountains.' Those springs, too, however short-lived, are remarkable for their copiousness and beauty. Not only not in the East, but hardly in the West, can any fountains and sources of streams be seen, so clear, so full-grown even at their birth, as those which fall into the Jordan and its lakes throughout its whole course from north to south" ("Sinai and Palestine"). The Hebrew word for a fountain or spring is áyin, meaning an eye. "The spring," says the same author, "is the bright, open source, the eye of the landscape."

Send forth (βρύει)

An expressive word, found nowhere else in the New Testament, and denoting a full, copious discharge. Primarily it means to be full to bursting; and is used, therefore, of budding plants, teeming soil, etc., as in the charming picture of the sacred grove at the opening of the "Oedipus Coloneus" of Sophocles: "full (βρύων) of bay, olive, and vine." Hence, to burst forth or gush. Though generally in-transitive, it is used transitively here.

Place (ὀπῆς)

Rather, opening or hole in the earth or rock. Rev., opening. Compare caves, Hebrews 11:38. The word is pleasantly suggestive in connection with the image of the eye of the landscape. See above.

Sweet water and bitter

The readers of the epistle would recall the bitter waters of Marah (Exodus 15:23), and the unwholesome spring at Jericho (2 Kings 2:19-21).

Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh

The best texts omit so can no fountain, and the and between salt and fresh. Thus the text reads, οὔτε ἁλυκὸν γλυκὺ ποιῆσαι ὕδωρ. Render, as Rev., neither can salt water yield sweet. Another of James' local allusions, salt waters. The Great Salt Sea was but sixteen miles from Jerusalem. Its shores were lined with salt-pits, to be filled when the spring freshets should raise the waters of the lake. A salt marsh also terminated the valley through which the Jordan flows from the Lake of Tiberius to the Dead Sea, and the adjoining plain was covered with salt streams and brackish springs. Warm springs impregnated with sulphur abound in the volcanic valley of the Jordan. Ἁλυκὸν, salt, occurs only here in the New Testament.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.
Wise and endued with knowledge (σοφός καὶ ἐκπισπήμων)

A rendering needlessly verbose, yet substantially correct. Probably no very nice distinction was intended by the writer. It is somewhat difficult to fix the precise sense of σοφός, since there is no uniformity in its usage in the New Testament. In classical Greek it primarily means skilled in a handicraft or art. Thence it runs into the sense of clever, in matters of common life, worldly wise. Then, in the hands of the philosophers, it acquires the sense of learned in the sciences; and, ironically, abstruse, subtle, obscure, like the English cunning, which originally meant knowing or skilful, and is often used in that sense in the English Bible (see Genesis 25:27; 1 Samuel 16:16).

In the New Testament σοφός is used - 1. In the original classical sense, skilled in handicraft (1 Corinthians 3:10). 2. Accomplished in letters, learned (Romans 1:14, Romans 1:22; 1 Corinthians 1:19, 1 Corinthians 1:26; 1 Corinthians 3:18). So of the Jewish theologians and doctors (Matthew 11:25), and of Christian teachers (Matthew 23:34). 3. In a practical sense, of the practice of the law of piety and honesty; so Ephesians 5:15, where it is joined with walking circumspectly, and 1 Corinthians 6:5, where it is represented as the quality adapted to adjust differences in the church. 4. In the higher, philosophical sense, of devising the best counsels and employing the best means to carry them out. So of God, Romans 16:27; 1 Timothy 1:17; Jde 1:25; 1 Corinthians 1:25. In this passage the word appears to be used in the sense of 3: practical wisdom in pious living.

Ἐπιστήμων occurs only here in the New Testament. In classical Greek it is often used like σοφός, in the sense of skilled, versed; and by the philosophers in the higher sense of scientifically versed, in which sense it is opposed by Plato to δοξαστής, a mere conjecturer. In this passage σοφός would seem to be the broader, more general, and perhaps more dignified term of the two, as denoting the habit or quality, while ἐπιστήμων indicates the special development and intelligent application of the quality to particular things. The Rev., wise and understanding, gives the distinction, on the whole, as nearly as is necessary.

Conversation (ἀναστροφῆς)

See on 1 Peter 1:15.

Meekness of wisdom

On meekness, see on Matthew 5:5. The meekness which is the proper attribute of wisdom.

"Knowledge is proud that she has learned so much,

Wisdom is humble that she knows no more."

But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.
Envying (ζῆλον)

The word is used in the New Testament both in a bad and a good sense. For the latter, see John 2:17; Romans 10:2; 2 Corinthians 9:2. From it is our word zeal, which may be either good or bad, wise or foolish. The bad sense is predominant in the New Testament. See Acts 5:17; Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:20, and here, where the bad sense is defined and emphasized by the epithet bitter. It is often joined with ἔρις strife, as here with ἐρίθεια, intriguing or faction. The rendering envying, as A. V., more properly belongs to φθόνος, which is never used in a good sense. Emulation is the better general rendering, which does not necessarily include envy, but may be full of the spirit of self-devotion. Rev. renders jealousy.

Strife (ἐριθείαν)

A wrong rendering, founded on the mistaken derivation from ἔρις, strife. It is derived from ἔριθος, a hired servant, and means, primarily, labor for hire. Compare Tobit 2:11: My wife did take women's work to do (ἠριθεύετο). Thus it comes to be applied to those who serve in official positions for their own selfish interest, and who, to that end, promote party spirit and faction. So Romans 2:8 : them that are contentious (ἐξ ἐριθείας), lit., of faction. Rev., factious. Also, 2 Corinthians 12:20. Rev., here, rightly, faction.

This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.
Wisdom (σοφία)

See on σοφός, James 3:13.

From above

Compare James 1:17.

Sensual (ψυχική)

See on Jde 1:19.

Devilish (δαιμονιώδης)

Or demoniacal, according to the proper rendering of δαίμων (see on Matthew 4:1). Only here in New Testament. Devilish, "such," says Bengel, "as even devils have." Compare James 2:19.

For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.
Confusion (ἀκαταστασία)

See on restless, James 3:8.

Evil (φαῦλον)

An inadequate rendering, because it fails to bring out the particular phase of evil which is dominant in the word: worthlessness, good-for-nothingness. In classical Greek it has the meanings slight, trivial, paltry, which run into bad. In the New Testament it appears in this latest stage, and is set over against good. See John 3:20; John 5:29; Titus 2:8. Rev., vile, which, according to its etymology, Lat., vilis, follows the same process of development from cheap, or paltry, to bad.

But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Emphasizing its inner quality, pure, as distinguished from its outward expressions. The idea is not first numerically, but first essentially. The other qualities are secondary as outgrowths of this primary quality.

Gentle (ἐπιεικής)

See on 1 Peter 2:18.

Easy to be intreated (εὐπειθής)

Only here in New Testament.

Without partiality (ἀδιάκριτος)

Only here in New Testament and very rare in classical Greek. Rev., without variance or doubting. See on James 1:6.

And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.
Vincent's Word Studies, by Marvin R. Vincent [1886].
Text Courtesy of Internet Sacred Texts Archive.

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